Blue Jays’ drowning pitching staff running out of life vests

Jonathan Lucroy had three hits and drove in four runs as the Oakland Athletics finished off a sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays with 8-2 win.

OAKLAND, Calif. – Even more than a win, which they didn’t get, what the Toronto Blue Jays really needed Wednesday afternoon was innings from Marcus Stroman, as many as he could muster, regardless of what they looked like.

To say that a pitching staff that in the past week has lost starter J.A. Happ and relievers John Axford and Aaron Loup via trade and still awaits a return to health from Aaron Sanchez is beleaguered would be an understatement. Only five times in the past nine games – including the five innings Stroman provided in an 8-3 loss that completed a seven-game season sweep by the Oakland Athletics – have the Blue Jays gotten five frames from their starter.

For context, that’s really bad. They need Stroman to be a stabilizer.

“To be honest with you I feel that pressure every single time regardless of who’s in the rotation, who’s not,” said Stroman, who allowed seven runs on 11 hits during an uneven outing in which he at times overwhelmed the Athletics. “I’m my biggest critic, I’m toughest on myself, I expect the utmost of myself to go out there and perform each and every time and when I don’t it’s frustrating. I’m not OK with this and I’m going to do everything in my power to get better and change the momentum going forward.”

Twice during the recent nine-game span the Blue Jays have had scheduled bullpen days. Short outings by a fresh-off-the-DL Marco Estrada and Sam Gaviglio in Oakland essentially turned into another pair of Johnny Wholestaff days, and with the front office in scramble mode to find a starter for Thursday, another one is possible for the series opener at Seattle.

Once again, some context: Blowing up your bullpen in the first game of a four-game set against a quality team is bad.

Had he not been traded, Axford would have started that game. Had he not been needed Tuesday for 1.2 innings of mop-up work, Brandon Cumpton, signed out of independent ball July 5, would have gotten the assignment.

Finding someone from outside the organization was in the works, too, and possible for Thursday.

The Blue Jays are out of stop-gap options at triple-A Buffalo – Nick Tepesch got lit up by Lehigh Valley on Tuesday, while Chris Rowley was lost on waivers to Texas last week – while Thomas Pannone, a knocking-on-the-door lefty already on the 40-man roster, threw 6.2 innings Monday.

Given the circumstances, having prospect Sean Reid-Foley debut Thursday would make sense, especially since he needs to be added to the 40-man roster this winter anyway. Starting his clock isn’t ideal, but neither is grinding down a pitching staff nearly bereft of life rafts right now.

The remaining two months of the season provides the Blue Jays an opportunity to sift through the various in-house pieces. Reid-Foley would have offered the Blue Jays as good a chance at winning Thursday as anything they might conjure up, while also showing where he’s at after a season of strong progress. Instead he took his turn as scheduled for Buffalo in the opener of a double-header against Lehigh Valley on Wednesday, allowing a run on four hits and two walks with six strikeouts in 6.1 innings.

Meanwhile, Stroman pitched three batters into the sixth against an Athletics team that looks fully capable of surging past the Mariners for the second wild card, allowing manager John Gibbons to use only three relievers to cover the final three innings.

Viewing that as a positive outcome is a pretty sorry state of affairs, but hey, that’s where things are at.

Stroman, coming off a strong 6.2 innings at Chicago over the weekend, generated seven swinging strikes on a slider that had bite but allowed seven hits on his bread-and-butter two-seamer.

“I feel like any other day those balls could be hit at people, that’s just kind of part of it,” said Stroman. “They did a great job of putting the ball in play early in counts, late in counts. I felt that everything they put in play was frustrating. My stuff felt great, my spinning stuff felt great. Just wash it and get to the next one.”

Jonathan Lucroy in particular wore him out, turning a down-and-away sinker into a two-run single that opened the scoring in the second, clubbing a middle-in sinker for an RBI double in the fourth and shooting a middle-away slider to right for an RBI single in the sixth.

That single ended Stroman’s day, and Danny Barnes, just off the DL, took over and promptly gave up a two-run double to Franklin Barreto, part of Oakland’s return for Josh Donaldson, that made it 7-0.

The Blue Jays eked out some runs after that, getting a Randal Grichuk RBI double in the seventh and a two-run homer from Russell Martin in the eighth. But in getting outscored 24-6 during a three-game sweep this week, and 27-12 during a four-game series in Toronto back in May, the chasm between the teams was clearly evident.

“I actually thought Stroman was alright, they hit him but they found every hole and they had some clutch hits,” said Gibbons. “They do a real good job hitting the ball the other way, making things happen. All three days we didn’t get much shut down pitching at all, other than a couple of bullpen guys. We haven’t been scoring a ton, either. Move on, next city.”

That’s why the Athletics are playing to reel in the Mariners, and the Blue Jays head to Seattle simply trying to cover the innings they have remaining.

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